Lady Anne Clifford - Kendal's Iron Lady

PUBLISHED: 16:06 12 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:58 20 February 2013

Lady Anne Clifford - Kendal's Iron Lady

Lady Anne Clifford - Kendal's Iron Lady

She fought a 40-year battle for justice and now a unique painting depicting Lady Anne Clifford's remarkable life has gone on show. Sue Riley reports Photography by Darren Andrews

The gaze of Lady Anne Clifford appears slightly disapproving as she looks down at the visitors in Abbot Hall gallery in Kendal. Given the 40-year legal battle she faced to inherit her family fortune its perhaps understandable she seems so stoical in the painting that she commissioned after winning her long fight. Now, the priceless triptych depicting her incredible life and times is on display at the gallery for the first time since it was purchased 30 years ago.

The Great Picture, as it is known, hung in Appleby Castle until it closed to the public in the 1990s and its return to the gallery posed a dilemma. The central panel was too large to exhibit - so apart lifefrom a brief appearance at Tate Britain in 2004, the painting has been in storage for the past 12 years. Until this year.

As one of their most asked about pieces, the gallery team worked for more than a year to put the 17th century triptych on display. Former gallery director Mary Burkett OBE of Isel Hall, Cockermouth donated the 5,000 needed to remove one of the sash windows so the central painting could be passed into the gallery and mounted on the wall alongside the other two panels. The process went smoothly with no hitches although the painting only got through the window with a centimetre to spare.

Looking at the reunited triptych, artistic director Helen Watson said: This is one of the highlights of Abbot Halls history. Helen was given the task of putting the three pictures - attributed to Dutch artist Jan van Belcamp - on display when she was appointed just over three years ago. Its one of the first things I was asked to do. Its one of our most popular pieces.

Now the triptych can be seen as it was intended with the images of Lady Anne as a 15-year-old, her parents and two young brothers in the central panel and then Lady Anne at the age of 56 and with pictures of her two husbands. Two triptychs were originally painted, the other was displayed at Skipton Castle but neglect led to its destruction the19th century.

Fortunately, the one now hanging at the Abbot Hall is in fantastic condition AndrewsCollections manager Nick Rogers, who was in charge of hanging the painting, said: Its priceless...utterly unique. Its cultural importance makes it one of the most important paintings in the collection.

Lady Annes life is fascinating her father disinherited her on his deathbed but she fought to reclaim Skipton and Brougham Castles and all the estate lands.

She married twice, was a great patron of the arts and refused to accept many setbacks in her long life.

When she was finally awarded her family fortune at the age of 56 she commissioned the two triptychs. Lakeland Arts Trust bought the remaining picture from Dowager Lady Hothfield in 1981 to ensure it was kept in the north where Lady Anne had ruled over her lands.

It was never intended that we display it, we acted as the facilitator.but next year is the gallerys 50th anniversary and this is part of the anniversary celebrations, said Jeanette Edgar, the gallerys press officer. She also hopes that having the painting in the gallery will spark more academic research. It gives the gallery an extra dimension, she said.

Lady Anne has a strong following, particularly in the north. Theres a society which meets regularly to discuss various aspects of her life and there is Lady Annes Way - a 100-mile walk which stretches from Skipton Castle to Brougham Castle in Penrith. With such a fascinating story much of it detailed in the diaries she wrote and which are still in print who could predict the next chapter of her legacy?

A womans rights

Lady Anne was born in 1590 to Margaret Russell and George Clifford, the third Earl of Cumberland, at Skipton Castle. Her father was a favourite at the court of Elizabeth I and was a famous jouster. two brothers died at the ages of five and six. father died when Anne was just 15 and he left her 15,000 but all the land and castles, including Skipton and Brougham, were bequeathed to her uncle.

Lady Anne was a strong character and spent the next four decades pursuing her claim though the courts and she finally won moral, financial and legal redress.

She was twice married, to the Earl of Dorset with whom she had two daughters and then to the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery. Following her second husbands death in 1649 she moved north at the age of 60 and, remarkably for the time, she lived another 26 years at her various castles. She died in Brougham Castle where her father had been born and she is buried in the family vault in St Laurences Church in Appleby.

The triptych will be on show at Abbot Hall until at least December 2012. Interpretative panels and an interactive computer facility are planned.

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